Are Trauma Survivors Less Frightened by Current Events?
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
I just heard one of my YouTube heroes, Richard Grannon, say something very interesting. Richard, also known as the Spartan Life Coach, has studied Cluster B personality disorders (narcissism, borderline, psychopathy) on an individual level and also on a macro level - how these traits affect society as a whole. He also knows a lot about CPTSD, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and how its symptoms can mirror those of borderline personality disorder (BPD). In short, he's a trauma expert who continuously works towards his own healing.
Even though this was the second time I heard Richard make this particular remark, it came across like a truth-punch to the gut - which is my impression of about 90% of what he has to say about any topic.
To paraphrase, Richard said that if you are a survivor of childhood trauma, you know what real terror is. You know what it is to be helpless and silenced and unable to escape. Therefore, you are not now terrified, as most people seem to be, about the current global crisis that we like to describe with a P or a C. If you have experienced complex trauma, you may be puzzled as to why everyone, including the government, seems to be running scared and responding so hysterically to the current threat.
No matter what my gut said, Grannon's theory didn't seem to make intellectual sense. We know that childhood trauma and other types of repetitive trauma can actually change the way the brain functions, leading to CPTSD in some cases; and even a single traumatic event can cause PTSD of the type we see in combat veterans and emergency responders. People with post traumatic stress disorder experience flashbacks and are hypervigilant to threats - even perceived or imagined threats. Therefore, wouldn't trauma survivors be the most worried about their safety during a pandemic?
The trauma response
We know that untreated past trauma can have an effect on how we react to current situations, even non-threatening ones. The limbic brain, responsible for survival, is activated by common triggers such as abandonment, stress, overwhelm, and shame and, in a person who has been traumatized, automatically responds in four key ways:
Fight: Anger, rage, combativeness
Flight: Escaping the situation, running away
Freeze: Dissociation, 'tuning out', shutting down, feeling detached or numb
Fawn: Appeasing, negotiating
Everyone has one primary response and one secondary response that they tend to go to (i.e. fight-fawn or flight-freeze) but we may use any or all of these primitive responses depending on the situation. And the reaction is more or less immediate, like a big yellow sign going off in our brain telling us, "There's no time to think! Do something to avoid this danger NOW!"
The problem with such powerful reactions is that, while appropriate in actual trauma situations to keep us safe, these behaviours can become maladaptive over time. This is why we may act out in road rage, abruptly cut off a friend to avoid confrontation, zone out on our phones all day to keep anxiety and loneliness at bay, or try to manipulate a salesperson into giving us a special discount. The old ways of dealing with stress, depression, pain and fear are no longer effective because they result in more shame, harm to personal relationships, and other serious real-world, present-day consequences of acting out.
So, which trauma response is involved in a reduced pandemic response?
If you have CPTSD, PTSD, or trouble regulating your emotions, you already know that your triggers can get very specific. For example, one of mine is insensitivity. You could call it a lack of consideration, or obliviousness, in others. If someone lets my lobby door slam on me when I'm struggling with groceries instead of holding it, blocks the subway doors so I can barely squeeze through in time, or asks the barista for detailed information on major Toronto landmarks when I am lined up for coffee and late for work, you can bet I will be triggered by it. I used to think my favourite mechanisms of fight and flight were the only correct responses to situations like the ones I mentioned above.
But as instinctual as these responses are, and how difficult it can be to respond better to triggers like dishonesty, incompetence, greed in the moment, overriding and underlying everything is an innate sense of distrust for authority that I have never lost. I think it's laughable to assume that the people in charge are primarily concerned with my welfare, and I don't understand the impulse to do what I am told without questioning it. But I'm aware that I see things through the lens of an overactive nervous system that resulted from not feeling safe as a child. I understand why so many other people do trust authority: they grew up feeling safe, and naturally believing in the people who were charged with their care.
Bam. Question answered.
Continue to examine not only what is going on in the world, but your own responses to it. Are you acting unconsciously, responding from the limbic brain to every sense of threat? Or are you acting from the evolved brain, the cortex, and carefully considering whether your own actions will result in the highest good for you and others? When decisions come from an awake, aware state, taking both current facts and personal history into account, we will automatically feel a sense of peace with our choices.
Stay with yourself, stay curious, and keep coming back to what's true for you in these difficult times.